By Joseph Romano- LUT Recording Secretary
In the Emmy award winning television program, The West Wing, President Josiah Bartlett would often use the phrase, “What’s Next?” to indicate that he was finished discussing an issue with his staff and was ready to move on to the next one.
Defenders of public education and the rights of labor unions to organize in those institutions have been engaged in a flurry of activity since the November election. But some 5 weeks into the current presidential administration, it is incumbent upon us to learn from past events and look towards the battles facing us in the coming weeks, months and years.
In a recent interview on the MSNBC show, MTP Daily, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka conceded that despite strong union endorsement of the other side more than a third of American union households voted for President Trump.
Nevertheless, defenders of union rights and public education have recently shown themselves to still be a force to be reckoned with, and even those voted for Mr. Trump are willing to speak out against the parts of his agenda that might harm our schools or our unions.
To be sure, other cabinet nominees of Mr. Trump have been
met with resistance. But only the labor and education
secretaries were significantly weakened or denied appointment.
This fact is testament to the continued strength and
capability of supporters of labor and
public education to influence our politics.
So far, only one of President Trump’s cabinet nominations - Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos - received considerable objection from the GOP. In a rare move in today’s polarized congress, two Republican Senators, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, split with their party and voted against DeVos’ nomination. This forced a 50-50 tie in the Senate and an unprecedented situation where the Vice President had to cast a deciding vote to approve her cabinet appointment.
On the Senate floor, Murkowski noted that her office had been flooded with calls urging her to oppose DeVos. “I have heard from thousands, truly thousands, of Alaskans who shared their concerns,” she said.
Objection to DeVos was widespread, not just in Alaska, but across our country. While DeVos was ultimately confirmed, the strength with which opposition to her nomination was shown significantly weakened her before she even took office. Without question, politicians in Washington D.C., and in our home states, took notice.
Thus far, only one of President Trump’s cabinet nominations, Labor Secretary nominee, Andrew Puzder, had to withdraw his name from consideration to avoid losing a nomination vote in the Senate.
Throughout the vetting process, organized labor played a vital role in protesting Mr. Puzder’s nomination and educating the public as to the fast-food executive’s past anti-labor practices.
To be sure, other cabinet nominees of Mr. Trump have been met with resistance. But only the labor and education secretaries were significantly weakened or denied appointment. This fact is testament to the continued strength and capability of supporters of labor and public education to influence our politics.
We aren’t winning every battle, but we are showing that we still have the strength to win some and to strongly contest all the others; a strength that will be tested time and time again in the days to come.
So…. What’s next?
In this newsletter you will read about many of the issues facing unions and public education moving forward. Some of these include:
New York State Constitutional Convention
Every 20 years voters in New York decide if a convention is necessary to change or modify the state constitution. A vote to hold a convention is set for next November.
Opening the constitution would allow big corporations and anti-worker groups a chance to lobby state congressional leaders to repeal union rights and take away state control of the budget. Make no mistake, opening the constitution is about money, most significantly, our teacher pension system which is the envy of other systems across America. Right now our state government can’t touch it. Opening the constitution could change that.
In preparation for the battle to come, LUT is holding an important general membership meeting on March 22. Full details are in this newsletter. Now is the time to learn the facts and help our union stop attacks on our pension and other union negotiated benefits.
Supreme Court Nominee
A year ago, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly and unexpectedly. His death left a 4-4 tie on the court in the well-known Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case. If Scalia had not passed away, the court would have issued a 5-4 ruling in favor of Friedrichs. This ruling would have allowed workers to receive union benefits without being required to pay for them.
Justice Scalia’s passing provided only a temporary reprieve for union organizing power. New cases are now going through the courts and heading to the Supreme Court for consideration. If the next nominee to the Supreme Court does not support the rights of unions, freeloaders will soon be able to receive union benefits, profits from negotiated contracts and legal defense in conflicts with their employers, all without having to pay a single penny. This will force unions to attempt to due 100% of the work without 100% of the resources needed to do so.
The LUT and our friends must insist that any nominee to the Supreme Court has a fair and balanced record regarding the rights of organized labor in this country. We must be willing to insist that a 60 vote majority continues to be the law in the U.S. Senate to confirm any Supreme Court nominee and strongly object to any change to that law via a so-called “nuclear option,” that would to allow a non-mainstream nominee to be voted on to the court via a simple majority vote.
Respected organizations, such as the National Education Association (NEA) have already turned their attention from the fight against the Betsy DeVos nomination to the battle to reject President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch. Read more about their activities here.
Few reforms in the history of education have been able to galvanize the unified objection of parents, administrators and teachers as strongly as the bogus standardized tests our students have been subjected to and the teacher evaluation system linked with the results of those tests.
While the state education department attempts to characterize miniscule adjustments as substantial reform, very little has changed in recent years regarding the educational relevance of these exams, the flawed curriculum on which the exams are based and the manner in which the results of these exams are tabulated.
The LUT will continue to stand arm in arm with the parent leaders of the opt-out movement to ensure that all student assessments are valid, provide meaningful feedback for teachers to drive future instruction, and, are no longer used to determine teacher job performance.
The state ELA exams are at the end of March. It is time for the strength of the opt-out movement to grow a new.
Protecting Public Education from Privatization
In a recent public statement, the New York State Allies for Public Education characterized Governor Cuomo’s recent budget proposal as, “a political stunt right out of the Betsy DeVos public education starvation playbook.”
While charter schools have not been widespread in our state, their influence has grown steadily. The Governor’s recent budget removes the cap on such schools in New York City and increases charter school funding overall.
If the senate confirmation hearings on Betsy DeVos proved anything, it was that the proponents of charter schools want public money to support their endeavors without being held to the same accountability standards as public schools.
Supporters of privatization do not wish to be forced to comply with federal laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the widely criticized federal and state standardized testing requirements to which public school students are subjected. Charter schools want to receive public money, but be run privately based on corporate business interests, as well as the personal viewpoints of the owners regarding what is, or is not, appropriate curriculum.
In addition, our new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is on record stating her opinion that Christian religious instruction should be part of the curriculum for all charter schools, not just those affiliated with a church.
The LUT and its allies will work to resist all attempts to take public funding and public control of the education of our children away from the public.
The bottom line is that any funding that is denied public schools to benefit private business hurts the quality of public education. Providing vouchers and an opportunity for a select few to attend a private school does not guarantee a better education for those children. What it does guarantee is a depletion of the resources needed to provide a quality education for all students.
With the new education secretary now in place, and her vision to privatize education clearly in view, the battle to protect public education may be our greatest challenge in the years to come.
So, what’s next? The answer is, a lot! Current movements against our unions and our profession may cause some of our brothers and sisters to realize that they may very well have voted against their own best interests and the best interests of our children last November. Be that as it may, we will need each and every one of us to stand united now in resistance against forces seeking to strip away our rights, our earnings, our benefits and our ability to property educate the children about whom we care so deeply.